It looked like a day for the mountain goats, but the 187cm frame of van Aert pushed clear on the second climb of Mont Ventoux, dropping the comparatively tiny Kenny Elissonde (Trek-Segafredo) and powering over the remaining 33 kilometres of the stage to take the win. Climbing and limiting his losses to the chasing peloton, van Aert then descended like a stone to win comfortably.
“I’m lost for words," said van Aert. "I did not expect to win this stage before the Tour de France. But actually yesterday I already believed in it. I asked the team to be the guy to go for the breakaways.
"It’s one of the most iconic climbs in the world of cycling. Maybe it’s my best victory ever."
Van Aert came into the Tour de France with limited preparation after an appendicitis operation set back his training, and said before the race that he had to lower his expectations for success at the race.
“Of course, it’s emotional," said van Aert. "Personally, it was really hard to come into this Tour in a proper level. The first week today with the team we had so much bad luck with the team, even today we lost Tony Martin with a crash.
"This is so nice, if you keep being motivated and keep believing it, someday it will work out. I’m really proud.”
The general classification battle was played out on the second ascent of Mont Ventoux, with Australian Ben O'Connor dropping out of second position overall after losing touch with the yellow jersey group with still 10 kilometres of Mont Ventoux left to ride. Tadej Pogačar retained the race lead, even extending his advantage with the fall of O'Connor, but it was his first sign of weakness, as the defending champion was unable to follow a powerful attack from Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) on the final climb.
Pogačar ultimately didn't lose any time to the young Danish rider, as a small group of overall favourites caught him just ahead of the line.
With a double ascent of Mont Ventoux in store for Stage 11 there was always going to be a big fight to battle to win the race and be crowned as the winner on such a historic stage.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was consistently trying to force the attacks clear in the early portion of the stage, eventually getting clear with Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic).
A strong chase group set off in pursuit of the pair Alaphilippe dropped Quintana and was away solo at the front of the race with still 164 kilometres to go. A group of six caught Alaphilippe with another group chasing behind, but not before the Frenchman took the most points at the intermediate sprint, with a small sprint from the peloton seeing Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) and Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) taking 3, 2 and 1 points respectively.
A series of crashes and lingering illness were having their effect on the race, with Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma) ending up in a ditch and abandoning, while Australian Miles Scotson (Groupama-FDJ), Clement Russo (Arkea-Samsic), Dan McLay (Arkea-Samsic), Tosh van der Sande (Lotto-Soudal) and Tiesj Benoot (Trek-Segafredo) all out of the race.
A succession of attacks from the peloton saw more riders attempt to bridge over to the initial attackers, with a fluid situation at the front of the race as UAE Team Emirates attempted to police things for race leader Tadej Pogačar. They gave way to INEOS Grenadiers when they came to the front of the race to set the tempo, with the British squad settling in at the front of the race and keeping the breakaway’s gap in check.
Col de la Liguière (9.6km at 6.7 per cent) was the first significant climb on the day, and Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) was the first to reach the summit and claim the maximum mountains points.
Alaphilippe, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Julien Bernard, Kenny Elissonde (both Trek-Segafredo), Australian Luke Durbridge (Team BikeExchange), Xandro Meurisse (Alpecin-Fenix), Nils Politt (Israel Start-Up Nation and Anthony Perez (Cofidis).
David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) was dropped on the early slopes of the climb, the rider who started the day in tenth overall slipping away from the peloton.
INEOS chase with Geraint Thomas, persistent effort that kept the effort pegged at the five-minute mark. Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) did a great job to jump across the gap from a small group chasing in between the peloton and the breakway, making his way over just before the summit of the climb. The sweeping descent from Ventoux saw a lot of scenic images of wide-open landscapes and stunning views, but little in the way of race information
At the foot of Ventoux, Bernard swung off after doing a lot of work for his teammates and Elissonde took immediate advantage, attacking to get clear. Van Aert responded with his own attack to bridge to Elissonde after a few kilometres, with Mollema and Alaphilippe forming as the main chasers.
Van Aert looked the stronger of the pair up front, and eventually struck out on his own with 33 kilometres remaining and a four and a half minute advantage on the peloton.
INEOS Grenadiers used up their riders to force the pace on the climb, with Australian Ben O'Connor (AG2R-Citroen) the first victim from the top riders in the general classification fight, dropped from the much reduced 'peloton' with 31 kilometres left in the race, still with 10 kilometres of Mont Ventoux left to climb and no team riders left to support him.
The West Australian was second overall heading into the stage and with the effort of the race clearly telling on his face, he had to fight onwards to salvage his standing on the general classification.
Van Aert continued his relentless pace over the chasing Trek-Segafredo pair of Mollema and Elissonde, summiting Mont Ventoux with a lead of a minute and ten seconds, with only the descent to the finish line remaining.
As the last of the INEOS Grenadiers mountain train, Michal Kwiatkowski, swung away from the front of the peloton, Vingegaard shot off in attack, with only Pogačar able to follow initially. The young Danish rider continued his impressive pace and was rewarded with the unusual sight of Pogačar struggling to follow. Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo) and Richard Carapaz (INEOS Grenadiers) mounted a more measured pursuit behind.
Vingegaard accelerated and drove up the gap, cresting the famous summit of the Ventoux climb with 30 seconds advantage over Pogačar, Uran and Carapaz nearly within touching distance over the top. Though van Aert still held a minute and a half lead and looked to be descending to victory.
Van Aert duly took the win, backing up his second in the bunch sprint on Stage 10 with a victory over the hardest climbs of the 2021 Tour to date.
Mollema and Elissonde battled on to finish just ahead of the general classification contenders, with Vingegaard caught within the last kilometres by the chasers, protecting Pogačar's lead overall, which increased dramatically with O'Connor falling from second to fifth overall.
The Tour de France continues with Stage 12, a 159.4-kilometre stage from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Nîmes, with Mark Cavendish potentially in with a chance of equalling the Tour de France all-time stage victory record. Watch from 2130 AEST on SBS, SBS VICELAND and the SKODA Tour Tracker for all the action from the race.